East Kiwanis Club turned boy into man by Susan Clairmont (Feb 2000)

East Kiwanis Club turned boy into man

Susan Clairmont
** The Spectator**

I’ve barely stepped through the front door of the Hamilton East Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club when a young man lunges at me, arm outstretched. “Joe Coleman,” he says, shaking my hand furiously. “I’m pumped for this.” Truth is, Joe is always pumped. For everything.

He’s a 17-year-old hyperactive cross between a politician, an evangelist and a cheerleader.

The worst thing about Joe? He talks a lot.

The best thing about Joe? He talks a lot.

Within 10 seconds. I learn he is a student, a basketball referee, a lobbyist, a parking lot attendant, a public speaker, a potential municipal election candidate. He plans to run for public school board trustee.

It takes a little longer to find out he was abused, a ward of the children’s aid society and a troublemaker.

Joe is a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of guy who is already dedicating himself to helping other troubled youths. At the club, his role is something between member and staff. He can be found doing everything from running the computer lab to writing press releases.

“Youths are not bad, they just need somewhere to go,” he says, as he shows me around with the same ease and pride of someone showing a guest around their own home.

His blonde hair is short-cropped, his eyes an impressive shade of blue. He wears black pants and a neatly pressed blue shirt while most of the club staff are in track pants and sweatshirts.

He leads me to the gym, where the after-school crowd is shooting hoops. Joe is the head basketball referee and is as serious as his NBA counterparts.

He steps onto the crowded court and the good-natured teasing begins immediately.

“Do a story about me. I’m a lot cooler than Joe,” says one boy, playfully punching Joe in the arm.

“What’s so special about Joe?” teases another.

Walking with Joe is like strolling with the King of Kensington: he knows everybody.

Six years ago, he didn’t even know where the club was.

He was 11, and things weren’t going well at home. He was physically and emotionally abused by his mother’s new boyfriend. Joe, his younger brother and his mom spent time in shelters for abused women.

“I’ve never known my father. My mom, though, did a good job. My mother’s a great person.”

Though he had once been identified as a gifted student, Joe’s marks began to slide and he “got in with the wrong crowd.”

He got into fights and broke windows.

“I was a nuisance to the neighbours. I’d be out late yelling and screaming. The police knew me.”

One night Joe trespassed at a business and the police caught him and gave him a talking to. The officer handed Joe a complimentary membership to the Boys and Girls Club along with a map showing him the way.

Joe immediately walked the few blocks to the Ellis Avenue club.

“Before, I thought the kids who went there were a bunch of goody-goods,” he remembers. “But I walked in here. They were friendly to me. They taught me how to play pool.”

Glenn Harkness, club director, remembers meeting “a tiny little guy” who was “very shy.”

Now he jokes that staff “have to pull him back once in a while.”

He describes Joe as likeable, approachable and mature.

“He’ll become an excellent leader.”

After that first visit, Joe walked for 45 minutes every day from school to get to the club. Each night when staff closed the building from 5 to 6 p.m. for dinner, Joe sat outside on the steps and waited for the club to reopen.

The cramped quarters were becoming more of a home than any of the dozen or so places he had lived with his mother. And when Joe was 12, the club essentially became his only home when he ran away from his mother’s.

A series of foster homes followed, none of which evoke fond memories.

But Joe always finds the bright side of things. Though he can’t even remember how many places he’s lived in — he estimates 25 — he says constant moving has given him an opportunity to intimately know most of Hamilton’s neighbourhoods.

When Joe turned 17, he got his own apartment downtown. The CAS pays the rent. Most teens fantasize about having their own place, but Joe says he is rarely there and seldom has friends over.

“I have the responsibilities of an adult and the privileges of an adult,” he says.

During the day, Joe attends Glendale Secondary School where he is in Grade 12. Some nights and weekends he works as an attendant at a downtown parking lot.

Every day he’s at the Boys and Girls Club.

In his spare time, he hones his political skills.

He is lobbying city council for air conditioning for the club. He has lunched with Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman and has made presentations to Hamilton city council.

He admires Sheila Copps and has shown her around the Kiwanis club. He spoke to a travelling Tory crime commission and he regularly speaks about Kiwanis at service club and charity luncheons.

“Federally, I hold no card. Provincially, I’m affiliated with the Liberals.”

When he was 15, Joe began showing up for the Hamilton and Wentworth public school boards’ amalgamation meetings.

He’d speak up every chance he got. At the end of the night, he’d get a ride home from Ray Mulholland, who was the first chair of the newly amalgamated board and is now vice-chairman.

“He attended so many meetings, he should have been a trustee,” says Mulholland. “He was there more than some of the actual trustees.

“If he does run for trustee, I wish him all the success in the world.

“He’d liven up the activity.”